SINGAPORE: By 6am every morning, Mr Tan Chiak Kong is already in his truck, fully decked out in an N95 mask, surgical gloves and disposable overalls, ready to drive off for his first trip of the day.
His first destination is usually a hospital, where he parks the truck at one of its waste collection sites, and manually loads 40 to 50 sealed bins onto the vehicle, sometimes with the help of a colleague.
After that, he drives back to Tuas and unloads them at his workplace - a facility where the content of the bins is incinerated at a temperature of more than 1,000 degrees C.
The 50-year-old is one of the 30-odd workers at medical waste management company Asia Medical Enviro Services.
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Ever since the lockdown in his home country of Malaysia, Mr Tan has been on the road seven days a week, picking up two half-day shifts on Saturdays and Sundays, to help his company cope with the higher demand.
Like his frontline counterparts in Singapore during the COVID-19 outbreak, Mr Tan has been working harder than ever despite the risk of catching the invisible pathogen in his role as a medical waste collection worker.
“Of course I’m worried,” Mr Tan, who is one of the firm’s seven Malaysian staff members, said in Mandarin about coming into contact with the virus through his job. “But I also have a responsibility to this company. Now, they’re so busy.”
According to the National Environment Agency (NEA), the daily amount of pathogenic waste collected from medical institutions in March was up by 60 per cent from the 2019 daily average of 10.3 tonnes per day.
While declining to reveal exact figures, Asia Medical Enviro Services’s managing director Gabriel Ho said that the volume of waste treated has gone up, but it is still at a manageable capacity.
Among his clients are SingHealth’s hospitals, including Singapore General Hospital and Sengkang General Hospital. The company, which was Sembcorp’s medical waste division until it was spun off as an independent entity in 2018, is one of the country’s five toxic industrial waste collectors licensed to treat pathogenic waste from medical institutions.
Mr Ho has brought in five more workers since the start of 2020 to ensure he would have enough hands to handle what he anticipated could be higher demand for his services, after hearing the news that medical waste volumes in China were surging. He also began to stock up on protective gear and initiated the company’s crisis protocols in January.
On the day that Malaysia announced it would close its borders, Mr Tan thought “long and hard” about whether to return to be with his wife and two daughter in Johor Bahru.
“Obviously, I would be safest staying at home, but I also need to earn money,” he said, adding that the company has been supportive during this period when he cannot go home.
He is given a S$45 allowance per day, and currently stays at Harbour Ville Hotel in Bukit Purmei with his Malaysian colleagues.
Relatives and even his closest family members have urged Mr Lai Khiu Jee to switch jobs.
“My wife asked me: ‘Why don’t you look for a safer job,’” said Mr Lai, who is one of the company’s plant managers.
He had to assure them that the company was taking additional measures to protect workers like him, the 44-year-old father of two said.
It is a tough job, he added, but one he believes is “critical to the healthcare sector” right now.
“I’m proud to be able to take care of the (health of the public).”
“(I am) very appreciative of all the staff members and their commitment to fight this together,” Mr Ho said. “And I recognise the…work they do behind-the-scene to fight this virus.”
Mr Ho said that the company has followed the guidelines set out by the authorities when processing pathogenic waste.
According to NEA, workers must place the bins into automatic feeders that unload the contents into the incinerators to minimise contact with the waste and disinfect the bins after the waste is incinerated.
In addition to these protocols, his company lines every bin with two layers of plastic to prevent any leakage, Mr Ho added, and bags carrying COVID-related waste - like gowns, masks and swabs - are incinerated immediately when they are brought back to the plant.
GENERAL WASTE WORKERS
Aside from medical waste employees, public waste workers, who serve the domestic and trade premises in Singapore, must also be protected, said NEA in a written response.
“Public waste collection poses intrinsic risks to workers, not just from potentially infectious materials, but also toxic substances and sharp objects, among others,” the agency said.
Companies are required by law to provide their workers with personal protective equipment (PPE), which public waste collectors must provide at their own cost, NEA said, adding that it is mandatory for employees to use the PPE issued.
A study in the New England Journal of Medicine including researchers from the US’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that COVID-19 can remain on plastic and stainless steel surfaces for up to two to three days.
Public waste collector Sembcorp Industries’ senior vice president of waste management Mr Neo Hong Keat similarly said that his workers have been issued masks and personal thermometers. Since the weekend of Apr 4, it is now mandatory for all crew members to wear masks.
Sembcorp, which serves the Woodlands-Yishun and City-Punggol precincts, is one of Singapore’s four public waste collectors.
A clean pair of cotton gloves has also been issued to each of them, he added, which they are able to replace with new ones when they are soiled or after each shift.
Waste Management & Recycling Association of Singapore’s chairman Ms Melissa Tan said that some of its 167 member companies - most of which are general waste collectors - have provided face masks and hand sanitisers to their workers, while gloves are already part of their usual attire.
General waste collectors primarily serve commercial and industrial premises, according to the NEA’s website.
While hygiene matters have been manageable so far, general waste companies say it is Malaysia’s travel restrictions and the uncertain economic outlook that have impacted their operations significantly.
Ms Tan said that many waste collection employees live in Johor. With the country extending its lockdown, some of them might decide to return home.
The amount of waste collected by general waste firms have also dropped as events, as well as tourism, retail and workplace activities have nearly grinded to a halt.
Some clients may cut payments by having fewer trash collections, she said.
Greenway Environmental Waste Management is similarly bracing themselves for business to plummet, said Steven Lee, its sales manager.
The general waste processor, which mostly handles waste from commercial, industrial and construction sites, will probably see near-zero demand in the next month as offices and non-essential services shut down over the next four weeks, Mr Lee said in Mandarin.
There is enough cash reserves to tide through this period without letting anyone from their pool of nearly 40 employees go, he said, but if the circuit breaker continues past May 4, it is not likely that everyone will be able to keep their jobs.
What has helped, he acknowledged, was that one Chinese national worker resigned as he felt returning to his home country was safer. Another Indian national has not been able to return due to ongoing travel restrictions as well.
As for the safety of their workers, Mr Lee said the company has provided the necessary gear and made putting on masks a requirement. But they are still understandably concerned.
“I’m scared, so of course my drivers are scared. But they are still have to carry on doing their jobs,” he said.